Difficult Questions and the Criticality of Inter Faith

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Many people like to say that inter faith is all about easy conversations, that it avoids the really important, and dangerous, issues, papering over them with platitudes and plates of cucumber sandwiches. Some inter faith organisations also take this view, or have been convinced by it, so that they avoid the traditional components of inter faith dialogue, doing away with dialogue all together – why dialogue when you can be doing something that makes a difference? Though, in defence of more traditional inter faith, I offer the strapline of the Council of Christians and Jews – ‘Making Dialogue make a Difference’.

So I want to explore the Difficult Questions because I disagree strongly, in fact two weeks ago we held our second ‘Difficult Questions’ event in Leeds. There are any number of difficult questions, they are being asked by people who are outside the scope of inter faith dialogue, apart from a few of our more provocative colleagues who call those of us working in this area, and our faith communities, to task. Here’s a sample of questions:

  • Do Christians and Muslims believe in the same God?
  • How can we do anything together if we passionately believe that the other is wrong?
  • Why is there so much violence associated with Islam, or conflict with religion generally?
  • Why do Christian leaders and those working in inter faith not speak up for Christian minorities more visibly and forcefully?
  • Why are we not doing more to protect converts?
  • Why don’t Muslim leaders condemn (so-called) ‘Islamic’ terrorism?

The list goes on, the fact that these questions are being asked may tell us that we have not been as successful as we would hope in getting our message across.

First, a little of our own history with difficult questions. The first was not difficult for us, as Christians and Muslims working together, but was for wider, secular society. It may surprise you as Muslim leaders from around the world meeting here in what is commonly regarded as a Christian country but there are regular news articles each year about Christmas being ‘banned’. One of the reasons, but not the main one from our perspective, is that we are a multifaith society, the UK is one of the most diverse countries in the world, and London its most diverse city.

What does it mean to celebrate, or even mention, the festival of Christ’s birth when many of our fellow citizens and neighbours do not follow him? It would be encouraging if there was public dialogue on questions of belief and theology in our society but that’s not what happens. Decreasing levels of belief means that people who we could describe as having a Christian heritage are adrift from society’s religious history, this lack of knowledge and grounding then leads to a tendency to make assumptions about people of other faiths and to be reticent in dialoguing with them. You may well have heard a spokesperson for a previous British government had this to say, ‘We don’t do God!’

Of course the Christmas banning stories were accompanied by the suggestion that Christmas should not be mentioned because it would offend Muslims. We were able to say, at the beginning of our work and relationship together, that this was not the case. In fact we argued that brushing Christmas under the carpet would only cause more difficulties as extreme right organisations would use it as an opportunity to stir up anti-Muslim hatred. And, in fact, groups such as the British National Party have attempted to hijack Christianity to promote their racist agenda since we published our ‘Christmas’ statement in 2006. My other observation about this and other ‘difficult’ questions is that they usually look more challenging than they are and that we learn new and encouraging things about each other. At the same time as we issued our Christmas statement one of our Muslim colleagues produced another paper for the Muslim Council of Britain. He wished ‘Merry Christmas’ to all Christians and urged more visibility of nativity scenes so that Muslims might have more awareness of Christian beliefs and to open up dialogue in those areas where we disagree, rather than being so embarrassed that there are no public opportunities.

Our second difficult question was on mission and daw’ah. Both Christianity and Islam are faiths which anyone can join and this universality is an important part of the growth of each faith. Yet, this open invitation can lead to competition or even conflict between them, not a good start for building inter faith relationships and our co-religionists who are most active in these areas tend to be most absent from inter faith initiatives. This is certainly very true in my own community, I receive regular challenges, only occasionally irate, that I spend my time dialoguing with Muslims rather than inviting them to become Christians. 

Addressing this difficulty head-on the Christian Muslim Forum produced its ‘Ethical Witness Guidelines’ in which we, both Christians and Muslims, commit to honesty and transparency of motivations in our activities and the importance of informing people in advance when events will include sharing of faith. We also pledge that in the course of sharing faith there will be no coercion. The guidelines also recognise that sometimes when people are facing crises faith communities have manipulated these situations to gain converts. The ethics of pastoral care emphasise that such situations should never be exploited and that invitations to join a faith should likewise not be linked with any inducements.  Finally, the guidelines make faith leaders and communities aware that people may feel a loss when one of their community decides to join another faith but that we should always respect an individual’s decision.

These guidelines have not generated the huge media coverage that our Christmas statement achieved, however they have been very influential with Christian and inter faith groups. They have been appreciated by individual Muslim partners but have not fitted so well with national Muslim umbrella organisations which have eschewed dealing with theological issues to avoid sectarian tensions. Ironically, as a Christian-Muslim organisation, theology has never been off our agenda, though it is not one of our main themes, perhaps this is because, maybe counter-intuitively, we have embraced our tensions. Friendship tells us that, as long as we do the dialogue well, our relationships hold together. One of the surprises for me, while attending an inter faith meeting, was to meet someone from a Christian missionary organisation who told me that they had adopted our Christian-Muslim Ethical Witness Guidelines as the guiding ethos for their missionary approach. I admit to some uneasiness, both personal and organisational, that our inter faith endeavours are encouraging missionary activity, but of course they have not, the organisation would have continued its work anyway. In fact, they have achieved one of the ultimate goals of inter faith, to inform the practice of one, or both, faiths so that it is self-reflective and influences the way in which we relate to those who are different, and have only done so by going into more difficult areas.

I should highlight that our reason for working on difficult issues is not purely because they are difficult, but because with difficulty comes tension, communities and individuals feel uncomfortable with each other and important conversations do not take place. Our next issue moved us beyond just difficult and uncomfortable as we focused on inter faith marriage. In the UK increasing numbers of people are forming relationships with each other outside their own religious traditions. This causes all kinds of consternation for families, communities and religious leaders. However, discussing the phenomenon and exploring how we could engage with it was new ground for inter faith initiatives. This began to open up a whole new conversation for us and we did not put it on our agenda for a few years after we were first confronted with it.

When we did open up the conversation our main concern was to help our religious leaders continue providing pastoral care and supporting people in their decisions. This could lead to couples feeling less isolated and families/communities less threatened. It raises many of the difficult questions that conversion poses. We remain clear that the Forum will not set up any initiatives promoting inter faith marriage, but it is a particularly sensitive area where, God willing, we can be helpful to a range of people, potentially whatever their stance and involvement.

The primary issue in this area, as with our Ethical Witness Guidelines, is ‘pastoral care’ or possibly ‘khidmah’ in an Islamic context (service). ‘Pastoral’ is only rarely a component of inter faith initiatives, but cannot be far away for an organisation which is built on friendship and committed inter faith relationships. We would all be better placed if inter faith engagement was an active and positive part of pastoral care and discipling (or nurturing - ‘tarbiyyah’). If inter faith itself should be on the pastoral care menu then support for romantic inter faith relationships is even more vital. If it is not there it leads to individuals or couples finding themselves in a religious no-man’s (or no-woman’s) land, unsupported, and perhaps criticised, by both communities.

One of my Muslim colleagues commented on this difficult dialogue – ‘After some very reserved initial changes I began to feel more comfortable as we dialogued. There was no negativity from Muslims following the launch of our inter faith marriage guidelines. I had to clarify some misconceptions, largely because one news outlet spiced up the initiative. I am delighted that our guidelines have been well-received. I raised the topic with 30 to 40 scholars who were accepting of it, though they did raise some concerns – would this diminish the (theological) ‘dislike’ of inter faith marriage and make it more acceptable, is it opening the floodgates?’

Working on difficult questions raises more difficult questions, but the Qur’an indicates that people who follow scripture will have many questions for each other, some of which are ultimately unresolvable, until God gives us the answers, Biblical prophets and writers say much the same thing. So in all our difficult questions we are only following the path that scripture has set out for us, even the ones which are between religions.

In some ways this exploration of engaging with challenging issues is also an illustration of why inter faith engagement is so critical. Without inter faith who will ask these questions, except for when they are asked provocatively and sensationally in the media and by those who have a problem with the other? And if we can’t ask and answer the questions in a respectful and moderate way then we won’t even be able to talk to each other, not on the issues that matter, and perhaps not at all as we will be suspicious or even have hatred in our hearts.

Inter faith initiatives which can bring people together for dialogue, relationship-building and sometimes conflict resolution are as much daw’ah or mission as anything else. They create a space where we can share with each other. In some parts of the world this has been happening for nearly 1400 years, since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, though threatened by recent atrocities and targeting of minorities. Inevitably in our faith communities, time and resources are directed at our own needs and concerns and there is less interest in investing in outreach and external activities, though philanthropists are investing in the good name of religion and initiatives which promote peace and harmony. In our own case, we have been more successful in raising funds and gathering support from the Christian community, with the notable exception of one minority Islamic tradition in England.

I would like to invite you to support our work as we strive to be at the forefront of Christian-Muslim interaction in the UK. It has been said to me, another difficult question, why do we need a Christian Muslim Forum, surely Christians and Muslims get on fine together? In some cases and some places this is true yet we regularly hear the results of surveys telling us that non-Muslims do not trust, or fear Muslims, that there is a belief among some that there will be a Muslim takeover of society, or that it is already underway. British people, informed to a greater, or lesser, extent about Islam and Muslims are asking about shari’ah, jihad, jizya, taqiyyah, the list goes on. There is nothing inherently troubling about any of these words in their proper contexts, but people are not asking about them because they are interested in understanding Islamic thinking, fiqh or theology but because they have become worrying words not due to Islam but through the way in which it appears to people. Organisations like the Christian Muslim Forum, and scholars like Toby, have been able to offer, at least, a much less worrying picture of Islam and Muslims, but at best to show how integrated the Muslim community is, moderate (an increasingly difficult word) and keen to dialogue.

We need investment in creating stronger engagement between Christians and Muslims to maintain a stream of news, information and initiatives which challenge the language of hate and some of the poisonous polemic offered by some, thankfully a minority, within my own tradition. We need to be able to continue to take issue with negative media coverage and inappropriate linking between violence, extremism and everyday Muslim spirituality. One small success that we had, relating to a small image on a website was to have the image of a Muslim praying removed from the BBC’s website. You may think that is an odd thing, but it was the image that was supposedly conveying a message about the TV programme ‘Generation Jihad’ and it was not saying that one’s own spiritual struggle was the greater jihad.

Staffing and resourcing have enabled us to speak up and make a difference in these areas where Muslim organisations are not resourced to do it as they have their own struggles in delivering their own remit. Our explicit focus on building good relationships, not just with ourselves, but with Christian and Muslim organisations, individuals and communities of both faiths as well as a wider society which has a Christian heritage, even if it is largely not practising means that this is our core remit. We were not set up to issue statements on absolutely every issue of concern and although we have gone public on many occasions, more than we ever thought we would, we still do not comment on everything. Yet, we need to speak up and speak out when the need arises, whether it is fears about unlabelled halal meat (and finding out exactly what is going on in our food industry is another one of those difficult questions) or challenging our politicians who from time to time create a difficult atmosphere for Muslims living and voting in their constituencies with unguarded or unwise remarks.

I agree that if Christians and Muslims were fully living up to the prophetic imperative we would have radically changed societies, informed fully by love of God and love of neighbour. Sadly we are not there, and within our own communities we need to persuade ourselves (and I have done so in many different Christian contexts, including being physically threatened on one occasion) and each other to engage constructively, positively and harmoniously. Who will take a lead on this if there is no trusted, national and strategic organisation to bring leaders and representatives of our faiths together. It is argued by some, who question the value of representative inter faith organisations, whether they exist for the sake of their own members and are of no value to the rest of the community and wider society. Yet, the evidence tells us otherwise, every time I am contacted by the media looking for a comment on conflicts which have been linked to faith, seeking a Muslim speaker or comment, or by local Christian or inter faith groups wanting to know more about Islam or how to build relationships between Christians and Muslims. When I am asked to speak to Christian groups about Islam or Muslims I am able to take a Muslim colleague along with me, a member of the Forum, one of our associates, a volunteer or someone from a partner organisation. And the local groups then tell us that they need a national body that they can link to for resourcing, support and advice, as the rest of our structures and organisations are not geared up to provide the necessary background, knowledge and experience. Our latest training scheme seeks to enable this, until interactions between our faiths are so much a part of everyday life that all our communities will fully take the lead. With sufficient resourcing, of which we are in great need, we work towards that day and hope that you will be able to support us in financing it.

Julian Bond
Director, Christian Muslim Forum
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